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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Setting the Table

If you haven’t yet perused the Nov/Dec issue of the Horn Book Magazine, there are some treasures in there, including:

An editorial about an advertisement, whose authors have also posted it here:  In his editorial , Roger challenges his readers “to find anything there that is not equally pertinent to fiction and nonfiction published for youth.”  My top 3 of these proclamations for our Newbery considerations are:

  •  “The line between moral and meaning is paramount”
  • “It is right that anything a child sees, feels, or thinks be our grist.”
  • “Even books meant to put kids to sleep should give them strange dreams”

There’s many other calls in there I think we should heed closely, but these are the ones that I feel most need to be heard.  That it is for children …their imaginative stimulation, whether comforting or un (and the un- is more often the truly stimulating) … that children’s literature exists. 

Also in the issue, and linked online, is an adaptation of Mo Willem’s Zena Sutherland Lecture.   Jonathan quoted from this already (help me find it? Piggie and Elephant all over our blog!), in regards to how Willem’s feels his text and illustrations should be separately incomprehensible, but together, allow for the reader to figure out what they mean.  And following that’s my favorite part of his speech: “Incomprehensible also because I never know what the book I’ve made “means.” That’s my audience’s job. You, the reader, create meaning out of the story; I just set the table. …. I prefer to write about things I don’t know, about things that perplex me, create a sense of wonder in me, or are simply weird. So I write about things like: What is a friend? How do you keep a friend?  How does what you do by accident change your environment and how do you come to grips with that? Wouldn’t it be cool to drive a bus?”

These are all the kind of questions and handles I’d like to apply to the books we’re considering, and I believe are underlying to the Newbery criteria, especially in regards to “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”   Where is the line between moral and meaning in A MONSTER CALLS (and does it give a child strange dreams?).  Which protagonists are the most well delineated, the most “real,” by embodying everything “a child sees, feels, or thinks”…  Mo Wren? May Amelia? Ben Wilson?…those three present themselves first to my mind in answer to that question.

Your turn.  (But, do read the rest of the Magazine too. It’s a paritcularly good one.)

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Interesting! Great minds think alike! But I was thinking the article that was the most germane to our conversations here was, “Nonfiction: What’s Really New and Different–and What Isn’t” by Barbara Bader–

    –which is a response to the Horn Book’s special issue on nonfiction earlier this year. Of course, according to the Newbery criteria a book need not be new or different (Orphans! Historical Fiction!); it just needs to be good. Of course, when something is good *and* new/different it helps us see it as “individually distinct,” but then, too, as Stevenson reminded us, “it’s more challenging to judge books of genuine originality [without points of reference].”

    But back to this article, specifically. Bader seems to reference Aronson and Bartoletti specifically in her response. I think she has some good points, but not always. What do you think?

  2. Nina, thank you for this: “That it is for children …their imaginative stimulation, whether comforting or un (and the un- is more often the truly stimulating) … that children’s literature exists.”

    I’m going to frame that and hang it on the wall beside my desk to remind me while I work.

  3. Jonathan, you beat me to it–I just looked up the URL of the Bader piece so I could post it here, myself. I called it “essential reading” in a tweet; I hope everyone will give it a read. I think it’s helpful in judging the nonfiction both if you read a lot of it and if you only read it when Jonathan and Nina make you. I was mightily annoyed by the nonfiction issue and glad to see it responded to in such a reasoned, thorough way. (I was also interested in the initial comments by others like Jim Murphy, immediately after publication.) I pretty much agree with everything she says, except that I wouldn’t draw such a big distinction of what nonfiction is now that it wasn’t then–but she says that, too, that’s it’s a mistake to categorize too closely.

    As to your question, Nina: I add Lucy Wu to your list. And this is exactly what I feel is missing in Junonia. To add a couple of books we haven’t really talked about at all: I think this aspect of characterization is particularly strong for the protagonists in Bigger Than a Breadbox and Small Persons With Wings.

  4. Genevieve says:

    I agree about adding Lucy Wu, and I would add Dini.

  5. Nina, I love that picture book Proclamation and thank you for the kind words about the Horn Book. But I am not completely clear on what “the line between moral and meaning is paramount” actually means. How do you read that sentence?

  6. Characters that embody everything “a child sees, feels, or thinks” — I hadn’t framed it this way before, Nina, and I’m very glad you raised it. I just realized that in GRAND PLAN, the visual descriptions of India are mainly (maybe only) things that Dini cares about and notices. There aren’t passages describing the scenery generally when her family arrives, but there’s a description of the tea field because Dini thinks it would make a great setting for one of Dolly’s movie; there are the winding roads on the way from the airport to Swapnigiri, because (if I remember rightly) the drive makes Dini a little motion sick, and there are the billboards with Dolly’s picture that Dini is so excited to see.

  7. Roger, I took that statement to be in sync with what Mo Willems is saying about setting the table…. that the book should present all the ingredients for the reader to establish meaning, while leaving the moral standing out in the cold. I don’t think morals are irrelevant or unimportant. But Readers will invite them in when they need them…and I believe they relish the reading better while the moral stands outside.

  8. Dini–yes!

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’ve been looking back at the Horn Book special issue, and I don’t necessarily think the Bader piece is a response to the entire issue as much as it is a response to the Aronson article. I think Kathy Isaac’s lead article, “The Facts of the Matter,” covers the same ground that Bader does–but only better. This past summer, I assigned my graduate library students to read not only “New Knowledge” by Marc Aronson, but Jim Murphy’s response on the I.N.K. blog and Russell Freedman’s response in the letters to the editor. They were pretty split in terms of which side they favored, but most of them really disliked Aronson’s tone which they found condescending–and I think that’s really what Bader is responding to. Some points . . .

    1. Bader says Bartoletti sources the quotes, but not the *information*, providing a solid bibliography instead, which is entirely true. But *nobody* sources information. Scholars and academics source *interpretation*. If you want to write down the basic facts of the Civil War you don’t have to source that information, but once you want to interpret the causes of the Civil War, and especially if you want to deviate from the general consensus, then you need to start citing sources. Bader herself admits that Bartoletti doesn’t editorialize, thus we wouldn’t necessarily expect her to do anything but what she has done.

    2. Aronson, on the other hand, editorializes to the point of discomfort for many people, but he not only cites quotes, he cites information, and cites everything in between. He is unmatched, generally speaking, in terms of allowing his readers to track his trails through the information, whether primary, secondary, or otherwise.

    3. Candace Fleming is another author who cites not only sources, but also information. Curiously, she is absent from both Aronson’s article and Bader’s. Yet I believe her scrapbook biographies are part of this new nonfiction, whatever the hell that actually is. Compare, for example, her biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln with Russell Freedman’s. Go ahead and do it. See a difference? You bet.

    4. Deborah Heiligman is another author curiously absent from Aronson’s article, especially because no book better embodies the point that he is trying to make. Mountains and mountains and mountains have been written about Charles Darwin and yet no book-length study of this aspect of his relationship with Emma existed before now. I think that is also the draw of CLAUDETTE COLVIN, not that nobody knew about it, or hadn’t written about it, but that so much had been written about the civil rights movement, yet this was the first book entirely devoted to her story.

    5. Aronson’s translator/explorer metaphors have ruffled some feathers, but I’ve always called the former “regurgitative nonfiction” because the author reads bunches of primary and secondary sources and then synthesizes them without making any new contribution to the subject. I wonder, however, how much of this has to do with the market for curriculum-related books and how much of it has to do with whether or not nonfiction authors for children and young adults can support themselves solely from writing. Can you support yourself by writing one book a year? Two? A book ever two years? Every four? So I wonder how much the economics of the marketplace drive the field.

    I do like many of the points Bader makes, but ultimately I wonder if she and Aronson aren’t both guilty of overgeneralizing from a small pool of books.

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